Dodge Nature Center Thrives Amidst Pandemic With Transformative Fundraising Campaign

brown squirrel on the side of a tree

Dodge Nature Center kicked off its largest-ever fundraising campaign in September 2020. This was as the United States was six months into the global pandemic and people throughout the country were feeling great economic pain.

And yet, this environmental education center headquartered in a small suburb of St. Paul launched the public phase of a $40 million campaign, with nearly 75% of the funding already secured. How did they do it? According to Dodge Executive Director Jason Sanders, the key was listening to the right people.

“Our initial intention was to raise $15 million for a new property in Cottage Grove, Minn., in order to build a new preschool facility there and make improvements to our main property,” Sanders explains. “After listening to our most committed donors, board members, staff, and expert campaign counsel, we realized we could and should do far more than we ever thought possible. The vision for the campaign significantly expanded from modest capital improvements to securing funds to ensure this 52-year old institution would be vital for another 50 years and beyond.”

Sanders and his team partnered with Creative Fundraising Advisors throughout the development and launch of the campaign called Nourishing Everyone’s Need for Nature. Given that much of the campaign was developed pre-pandemic, Dodge’s experience pivoting its plan and adjusting to a virtual environment for prospect cultivation and solicitation can be a case study for organizations considering a major campaign.

Start with a Solid Vision

In the fall of 2018, Sanders and the board were considering plans for Dodge’s Shepard Farm property. Since receiving the property in 2013, they had been maintaining it and making small upgrades. However, they knew it could be more closely aligned with the other properties, and they started contemplating a capital campaign.

“We were getting real momentum internally for the idea of building a preschool there,” says Sanders. “Our West St. Paul preschool is hugely popular, and it was appealing to replicate that program at Shepard Farm.” Sanders and the board asked CFA to help explore the idea. “CFA was knowledgeable about conservation and education, but they had enough distance from our normal operations that they were able to challenge assumptions, to bring perspective, and to ask hard questions.’’

“It’s really important to get boards and leadership teams aligned before kicking off a big campaign,” says CFA Vice President Jake Muszynski, who led the work with Dodge. “In order to do that, we stepped back from the campaign idea and held a workshop to help all the major stakeholders come into agreement around the future of Dodge. And what we found was, opening a new preschool in another community was not central to their shared vision.”

“The vision workshop was really enlightening,” Sanders says. “We did a lot of small group work to be sure that everyone’s voice was heard. Collectively, our priorities are to expand and impact the lives of thousands more visitors, to preserve and protect the original vision of our founder, Olivia Irvine Dodge, and to be a significant force in educating future generations about environmental education. A new preschool in a new community might be a priority at some point, but we realized it wasn’t where we wanted to start.”

Sanders worked with his board and leadership team to expand on the vision they had established in the workshop. Based on those discussions and recommendations from CFA, Dodge decided to test a $15 million campaign focused on growing Dodge’s endowment, investing in capital improvements, and supporting the annual fund.

“We were focused on the endowment because we know we don’t need big buildings,” Sanders says. “We exist to get people outside, and we don’t want to devote big dollars to buildings and drywall. Because we knew our ‘Why,’ our priorities for the campaign were clear.”

Validate Your Case with Donors

Sanders then asked CFA to conduct a feasibility study, which included conversations with top donors to see if the goals of the campaign were compelling. “Feasibility studies are all about fact-finding, understanding potential investors’ support for the vision of the campaign, and positioning the organization for success,” Muszynski says. “Organizations discover how motivated their donors are, and sometimes they find out that they won’t attract major gifts.”

For the study, Muszynski and CFA President Paul Johnson crafted a summary of the case for the campaign, screening and interviewing potential donors. It soon became clear that the board’s vision and campaign goals were right on track.

The feasibility study had another powerful outcome: a $22 million lead gift from a long-time supporter. This gift changed the entire dynamic of the project and led Dodge to increase the scope of the campaign to $40 million.

“We really appreciated CFA leading us through that feasibility study,” Sanders says. “We knew we wanted to talk to our nearest friends, and it was incredible to find out that we could secure a lead gift that was larger than the initial scope of the campaign. Because of the study, we knew we could ask for enough to protect our endowment, to secure our annual fund, and to invest in capital improvements as dictated by our strategic planning, not limited to a specific site. This all will help us ensure that Dodge is healthy and able to serve the community for at least 50 more years.”

“A rigorous feasibility study is absolutely critical for a successful campaign,” says Johnson. “You get rich input from your supporters, uncover unrecognized needs and opportunities, and sometimes you learn enough to know you’re not really ready to go forward.”

Ask for Major Gifts

By mid-2019, with an ambitious plan developed and a significant lead gift secured, Dodge was ready to move into the quiet phase of its campaign.

After the lead donor, the first significant gift conversation was with Minnesota philanthropists Si and Vicki Ford. Vicki is the niece of founder Olivia Irvine Dodge, and in 2000, the Fords had established the preschool in West St. Paul. They had been part of the feasibility study and had expressed interest in contributing to the campaign. “But when we went back to them with our vision and showed them our path to $40 million, they became even more inspired,” Muszynski recalled.

They found the vision so compelling that they committed $5 million to the campaign, and Vicki signed on as a campaign co-chair. “The size and scope of our campaign, and our ability to show how we would get to the $40 million, really drove their interest and their level of commitment,” Muszynski says.

Plan For Anything

When the U.S. started feeling the effects of the pandemic earlier this year, there was significant concern about moving forward with the campaign. In March, as schools and businesses shut down, the team stopped soliciting major gifts.

After the first few weeks, people were encouraged to get outside. “You couldn’t gather but you could get outside safely, so we saw people coming to Dodge,” Sanders says. “We were seeing new people on our trails, and we had great attendance at our online “lunch and learns” with our naturalists. Our mission was right in line with what people needed. We knew we had a responsibility to protect our ability to do that, which meant pressing on with the campaign.”

Increased attendance was proof of Dodge’s value to the community, while the organization also had data from the feasibility study that confirmed the great level of commitment of their donors.

“When the team considered whether to delay or to lower the goal, we had the data,” Muszynski says. “We kept showing the numbers and our fundraising pipeline. With that assessment we could move forward confidently, knowing that our ask was not tone deaf and that donors would prioritize Dodge.”

While Covid-19 forced shifts in operations, the fundraising program was able to continue largely as planned because the campaign was so clearly connected to the larger vision for Dodge. Not every organization is in that position, and that uncertainty can make planning difficult.

“The best solution we can offer for that is scenario planning,” says Johnson. “We work with clients to think through their long-term plans and to consider what they would do if there is no vaccine, or if a completely new disruption were to hit. When we imagine how we would handle major disruptions, we are able to be nimble, no matter what comes at us. And we account for those possibilities as we approach our strategic plans and feasibility studies.”

Support the Development Team

The launch of the public phase of Nourishing Everyone’s Need for Nature was slated for Sept. 17. It became an online event rather than a live gala, with videos, remarks from Sanders and other campaign leaders, and an online auction. As planning progressed, Dodge’s Development Director moved to another organization. Fundraising veteran Tony Grundhauser had recently joined CFA and stepped into the vacant seat on an interim basis. “He had a great background in environmental work and was a natural fit for Dodge,” Muszynski says. “He really reenergized the campaign from the inside during its quiet phase.”

The CFA team was able to lead launch efforts so seamlessly because of the close alignment it had with the campaign from the beginning. Also helpful was having in-house design capabilities and writers.

Ensure Top-Notch Execution for Public Phase

While Grundhauser worked with Sanders to call donors and secure large gifts, Muszynski focused on leading the planning for the public launch. He scripted and oversaw videos, arranged for the online auction, and coordinated design and web production along with CFA Creative Services Director Sara Johnson. “My primary focus was that we were going to be able to announce a very successful campaign,” Muszynski says.

The public launch of Nourishing Everyone’s Need for Nature took place, as scheduled, on Sept. 17, 2020, with its virtual gala and online auction. Remarkably, nearly 75% of the campaign was already secured, while the gala raised another $150,000 for Dodge (See the campaign collateral).

Executive Director Sanders is immensely pleased with the results of the campaign, for the funds it has raised so far and for the sense of focus the team has developed in the process. “We know who we are and what mission we’re serving,” Sanders explains. “Now we can look at our decisions more firmly through the lens of why we exist and how we protect our ability to give people access to nature.”